Whenever I tell someone that I used to practice law before doing what I do now, what generally follows is a question about how I managed to take the leap. "It's such a big change," they wonder, "going from something like law, to photography or writing. You're so brave."
It's very flattering, of course, to be perceived as courageous; however, to be completely honest, that perception is woefully misplaced. For one thing, changing my work life had very little to do with bravery: at the time, it felt imperative. My health (both mental and physical) was starting to be affected by staying in a career that didn't feel like a good fit anymore. I left the practice of law because I had to.
The other reason the presumption behind the question rings false is because my leaving law might have looked like a leap, but really, there was a secret pathway already laid out taking me generally where I needed to go -- it was just sort of invisible to the outside world. The truth is that I didn't just walk out of my job with a bold declaration (I imagine people think I yelled, "I'M BLOWING THIS TACO STAND!" while throwing a scarf jauntily around my neck as I turned on my heel and flounced out the door); in fact, by the time I turned in my notice, in many ways I had months -- even years -- of groundwork that I had done. The truth is that I didn't make a giant leap, so much as take a little skip out the door, with a map of where I was going tucked firmly under my arm.
And so, if you've contemplated making a big leap into a new life and aren't sure where to begin, here are some of the things I was sure to do before I took my "big leap" -- perhaps some of these ideas will resonate with you.
5 tips for taking the big leap
1. Spend some time thinking about what you stand for. Take time to really get introspective: don't just think about what sort of work you'd love to do, but think about what your work, once you do it, will stand for. You might want to even write a personal mission statement -- an broad outline of what you'd like your legacy to be, even if you're not exactly sure about how you'll make that legacy happen. Just having this statement can help be your guidepost for more concrete decisions to come.
(For reference, here's my mission statement. Years later, it still serves to inform every personal career decision that I make.)
2. Experiment with your new life by carving some time to do what you love to do. If you think you want to do something creative, then be sure to take some time on the weekends doing that. If you're thinking of hanging a shingle or being an entrepreneur -- opening your own accounting firm, perhaps, or starting a bakery -- spend some time practicing your new craft during your off-times. I know that it might feel like you don't have the time on the weekends (or you're too exhausted by your regular day-to-day job to even try), but I think it's really important to convince yourself that what you think you might have passion for is actually something you do feel passion for; and the only way to do that is to try. Besides, if you're truly doing what you love to do, chances are that you will feel energized by doing it (this is what photography does for me). And if you're not energized by it, than perhaps some further experimentation is necessary.
3. Develop a portfolio. One of the reasons that I felt comfortable leaving law is not only that I had been writing and shooting for years, but that I had a portfolio -- at the time, in the form of my blog. Then, when it came time to redesign my site to illustrate what my new life was all about, I already had samples of my best work at hand to showcase.
In other words, as you experiment and practice your work before you take the "big leap," be sure to record your successes -- take photographs of the cupcakes you've been baking on the weekends, or grab some testimonials from clients whose accounting you've done as a favour. Spend some time recording the things that you've already done that illustrates what you're capable of (articles you might have written, talks you might have given, organizations with whom you've volunteered time and services). Slowly build up the case for why what you'd like to do in the future makes sense -- both for future clients and yourself. Because nothing builds confidence like creating a strong portfolio.
4. Prepare the practicalities. While the phrase "leap, and the net will appear" is all well and good, it's worth it to spend some time to ensure conditions are favourable for that appearing net. Consider finances: if you're a two-earner household, can you manage as a one-earner household for a while? Does it require you to save up a certain amount of money? Does it make sense to take out a business loan or search for investors? How about education: does what you want to do require certification or a diploma, or any other type of documentation or learning that will take some time or money to earn? How can you make that happen?
Lay out all the baby steps necessary to mitigate the risk of walking away from your current worklife, set a timeline and move forward. I had made the decision to leave my law practice 6 months before I actually did it, because I wanted to make sure that my ducks were in a row. Even though it was tough-going at first, knowing that my family and I would ultimately be okay was a huge weight off of my shoulders when the day finally came to leave my job.
5. Open your mind. Even after you've done all of this pre-work, once you've actually made the move, things might not turn out exactly as you intended (for example, when I first left law, I thought that part of my business would be as a personal-photographer-for-hire, and it turned out that doing so made me miserable -- to the point that I questioned my own love for photography! But eventually, I decided, that perhaps it was the type of photography I was doing, and let that go. It was the right decision. As you make your way, cut yourself some slack, and allow yourself to adjust and re-adjust what you do to make sure that your new life is tailor-fit.
And then watch as the net truly does appear.